Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Democracy Remains Un-fracked

Last night Caroline residents once more filled the town hall for discussion and a vote on what’s become known as the “Ban the Ban” resolution. About 30 people spoke during a two-hour privilege of the floor session. In the end the resolution was voted down 4-0, with one board member abstaining.

The resolution’s stated purpose was to “clarify the role of the Town Board” regarding gas drilling. If passed, it would have prohibited the Town of Caroline from taking any action to either encourage or limit gas drilling (read more here and here). But last night, most of the residents who spoke made it clear that they wanted their town to be able to take a stand against fracking.

I was unable to be there but Bill Podulka, chairman of ROUSE (Residents Opposing Unsafe Shale-Gas Extraction) gave me a quick run-down on what happened last night.

Board discussion was brief, says Podulka. Council members Toby McDonald and Peter Hoyt, who during June’s meeting spoke in favor of the resolution, declined to comment. Councilwoman Linda Adams, who co-authored the resolution with Hoyt, acknowledged that all the statements made by the public at the June meeting and last night made her realize that the community clearly wanted the Town Board to play a role regarding gas drilling and shouldn’t simply limit itself to roads.

Councilman Dominick Frongillo stated that the Town Board is just beginning to understand the impacts of gas drilling on the community. In his mind, the legal issue of whether the town is preempted by state law is not yet settled.  Since gas development would conflict with the town’s Comprehensive Plan, Frongillo felt the Town Board should not limit its role.

Town supervisor Don Barber spoke at length, and with eloquence. He explained why he opposed the resolution and laid out several actions the town should take. Podulka summarized several of Barber’s key statements:  

1) The role of government in a civil society is to protect the health, safety and well-being of the citizens, and to protect the process of democracy.  At the Federal and State level, government is run by the rich and does not look out for the best interests of the citizens.  As the only level of government still accessible to and responsive to the common citizen, local government is the last defense against runaway corporate power and must stand up in defense of civil society.

2) Property rights include the right to peaceful enjoyment of one’s property.  The size of one’s property holding does not affect the size of one’s rights.  Barber asked about the effects of huge multinational corporations entering the Town of Caroline (as would happen with high-volume hydraulic fracturing). They will impact our freedoms, he said. Even leasing itself is a loss of freedom, as landowners cede control over minerals and often the surface of their land to a non-human, corporate entity.

3) Addressing concerns about zoning issues, Barber noted that with no public input whatsoever, Caroline has just made a major shift in land use policy, as control of more than 50% of the town’s land area has been handed over to corporations through leasing.  He pointed out that zoning and other town-based land use decisions would require public notice and public discussion.

4) On the issue of preemption, Barber noted that the revised SGEIS recognizes the role of local governments in setting land use policy and clearly indicates that the DEC, at least, will not sue towns over the preemption issue. State preemption of local authority is not a black-and-white issue, and because of this uncertainty he called for the resolution to be rejected.

Acknowledging that gas drilling is a polarizing issue, Barber asked all sides to “remain sensitive to the possibility that they might be wrong.”

Finally, Barber laid out a road map of actions he would like the town to take:
  •  Enact industrial site plan review legislation.
  • Adopt rigorous aquifer protection plans.
  • Develop a strong road preservation law.
  • Give serious consideration to a ban or other control by the town on high impact industrial uses.

When the vote was called here was no vote in favor of the resolution. Hoyt abstained; citing conflict of interest, he promised to recuse himself on all votes regarding gas drilling for the remainder of his term. Adams, McDonald, Frongillo and Barber voted against the resolution.

Last night Democracy won. But, said Podulka, “It is only with the strong backing of [Caroline residents] that our Town Board will have the courage to make a firm stand in favor of the majority interest of the citizens of our community.” A good reason to attend town board meetings….

1 comment:

  1. Great reporting on the root issue at hand with rural industrialization. We must tame the beast that is created by the corporate-government nexus. If we can not separate the destruction of civil liberties from "land rights" it's time to stop and rewrite conflicting laws.

    Dave Walczak, Bath, NY